There are few more impressive figures in the Old Testament than Samuel. ‘Integrity’ and ‘loyalty’ are words that immediately come to mind when one thinks of this godly individual.
This article will examine the life of Samuel in two ways.
Firstly, his career and ministry will be discussed followed by his contributions to the spiritual health of the nation, Israel.
This article will focus primarily from the time of his ministry under Eli to the anointing of Saul (when the monarchy was established). From this time to the anointing of David, the detail is intentionally less.
Samuel was born to Elkanah and Hannah, and dedicated to the Lord when a child. This time is where Samuel’s ministry begins – ‘but the boy ministered before the Lord under Eli, the priest’ (1 Sam 2:11).
By a special revelation, God spoke to Samuel (verses 3-4ff). (This was to begin a remarkable relationship between God and Samuel, which lasted all of Samuel’s life). God reveals to the young boy the downfall of Eli’s house. After this, Samuel grew as a respected prophet among the people in communion with the LORD – “The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of His words fall to the ground. And all Israel, from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the LORD. The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, and there He revealed Himself to Samuel through His word” (3:19-21).
After this, the Israelites suffered a defeat against the Philistines. In an over-zealous move to use the ark of the covenant as a ‘good luck charm’ they were again defeated. Eli’s sons were killed, Eli himself subsequently died and the ark was taken by the Philistines.
The scriptures are silent about Samuel till chapter 7:3 where he is mentioned again. Israel is mourning and seeking the Lord because the ark has been at Kireth Jearim for twenty years. Samuel informs them that if they are truly turning to the LORD, then there must be genuine repentance. They must turn their whole hearts towards Him. They are to rid themselves of foreign gods and Ashtoreths and wholly commit themselves to God, serving Him only. This truly was a command by Samuel for national repentance. The prophet promised them that God would deliver them from the Philistines.
This silence is very interesting and should not be ignored when discussing Samuel’s ministry. What was happening in those silent 20 years? Israel was a nation far from spiritual obedience to Yahweh and then, 20 years later, she is crying out to Him in repentance. The answer could be found in J.C.J. Waites’ words. He writes:
“Is it a wild assumption to conclude that this spiritual volte-face is to be attributed to Samuel’s nationwide prophetic ministry? Only by making this assumption can we explain the unquestioning acceptance of his leadership both as prophet and judge which made possible the national convention at Mizpah...” (i)
And there was genuine repentance. The Baals and the Ashtoreths were ‘put away’ and Israel served the LORD. Samuel made intercession for the people.
The Philistines heard of this gathering and their subsequent action was to attack Israel. Samuel figures prominently in this event due to the Israelites’ fear of the Philistines. After they pleaded with Samuel to pray for deliverance from the enemy, the prophet offered a whole burnt offering to the Lord; ‘He cried out to the LORD on Israel’s behalf, and the LORD answered him’ (7:9b).
It was during the burning of this offering that the Philistines drew near and were defeated by divine intervention and the Israelite army. This was a victory under Samuel’s leadership. He commemorated the victory with a stone whilst at the same time acknowledging God’s help.
The Philistines were not to invade the land of Israel again.
However, Israel regained territory she had lost. Israel assisted ‘the neighbouring territory’ and achieved peace with the Amorites.
Samuel, till his death, remained a judge over all Israel. Every year he judged from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah to Ramah.
Chapter 8 reveals a turning point in the life of Samuel and of Israel. Davis and Whitcomb write: “One would expect a continued revival and spiritual growth among the people who had experienced such a reversal in political and military trends; however such was not the case. As the Philistines and Ammonites began to apply additional pressure on the borders of Israel, the children of Israel, rather than turning to God, sought out a human leader to provide military victory.” (ii)
The Israelites wanted a king. Samuel’s sons had proven to be very dishonest and corrupt, thereby making them unfit judges. Samuel was old and unable to lead Israel. The logic used by the elders of Israel was this: Samuel is old, his sons are unfit and the other nations have a king to lead. We want a king!
Greatly disappointed, Samuel prayed to the LORD. Yahweh replied that the prophet was to listen to the people; the people had not rejected Samuel but God. Samuel was to ‘warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do’ (8:9).
The LORD’s words were revealed to them by Samuel. They were warned of specific, negative consequences a king would administer, such as military conscription, but the people refused to change their minds. They desired a monarchy; not a theocracy.
Again Samuel took this disturbing issue to the Lord; to which the LORD replied, “Listen to them and give them a king” (8:22).
By an act of God’s providence Saul (a Benjamite) was introduced to Samuel. During this time Samuel remained a highly respected prophet of God (cf. 9:6), offering sacrifices (9:12). God had revealed the reason why Saul was visiting. The LORD commanded Samuel to ‘anoint him leader over my people of Israel’ (9:16). God had commissioned Saul to be a leader to fight the Philistines.
Samuel anointed Saul to be the first king of Israel. Then Samuel “summoned the people of Israel to the Lord at Mizpah” (10:17) and reminded them of the supreme act of deliverance of Israel from Egypt; their rejection of God and the regulations of the kingship. There followed a re-affirmation of the kingship at Gilgal and a further speech, by Samuel, to the people reminding them of his integrity in service and the history of noted dealings of God with Israel. The people responded, significantly, declaring their deep respect for Samuel.
We read that during this time (12:1-25) Samuel’s heart is still bleeding for the people and the decision they had made in demanding a king. He rebukes their sin and calls on the LORD to send rain.
A critical moment arrives. Upon a delay by Samuel, Saul does the unthinkable and offers ‘up the burnt offering’ before the troops; clearly a priestly (not a kingly) function. After Samuel had rebuked Saul (13:3), he left Gilgal and went to Gibeah. He is mentioned next in the historic record in chapter 15 where he tells Saul that the LORD had rejected him as king due to Saul’s lack of submission the Yahweh.
In deep contrast, Samuel continues to receive the very words of Yahweh and his ministry as a prophet is beyond reproach.
He was not to see Saul again after the killing of Agag (15:33) and this grieved him. During this time God reveals to Samuel that he has chosen another king. Therefore, Samuel was involved in finding the new king and anointing him.
After anointing David, in Bethlehem, Samuel went to Ramah.
There follows dealings between David and Samuel which must have left a deep and abiding influence on David.
From chapter 17 onwards, Samuel virtually disappears from the Scriptures.
There are probably a few reasons for this. Firstly, by this time he is very old and no longer figured as prominently as he did. He had hoped his sons would continue the ministry.
Secondly, the peak of his ministry was as a prophet and judge. His energies were greatly used in this dual role during the transition. He was a spiritual and civil ruler of the people.
Thirdly, he surrendered his powers as a civil ruler to Saul (whilst remaining a prophet). The monarchy had begun so the historian of 1 Samuel 12 focussed on the kingship and its related history.
This reason and the fourth reason are the two dominant factors in the relative silence of Samuel. The fourth reason is this: David’s kingship and relationship to God is generally very successful. David becomes very important because he is a good king and governs as a true king. The focus of attention is on him – the greatest king Israel had known and will ever know. The focus of attention is on the type of Christ. No wonder that the remaining chapters devote so many words to the future King David.
However, Samuels’ supreme achievement is to lay the foundation of the true kingdom!
“Never did Israel’s chances of survival seem more slender than when Samuel at God’s bidding assumed the office of judge. His wise, vigorous and above all, God-directed leadership brought the nation back from the brink of overwhelming disaster. He steered Israel through the momentous transition from loose tribal federalism to the establishment of the monarchy”. (iii)
These accurate words of John C.J. Waite summarise the contribution of Samuel.
Samuel’s contributions to the nation of Israel is best weighed objectively if one understands Israel’s disobedience and rebellion to God at the time of Samuel’s introduction to the office of judge. During the time preceding Israel’s defeat at the hands of the Philistines; the nation had forsaken the Lord and was extremely despondent. Whitcomb and Davis describe this period of time as “religious degeneracy and political distress” (iv). The Philistines were obviously strong and becoming stronger. Israel was without strong leadership and its religion was corrupt and self-seeking. It is in light of this that Samuel’s contributions should be judged and found to be truly remarkable.
Samuel is one the rare breed of Biblical saints who does not have any ‘negatives’ recorded about him in the Bible. This speaks eloquently of the man. He provided much needed spiritual and political guidance to a nation sadly lacking these essential qualities.
It was through Samuel’s exhortation that the nation turned back to the LORD in sincere repentance. His aim was to pierce the conscience of the Jewish heart so that it would recognize its need for Yahweh. He directed their eyes to heaven and away from themselves – their self-pity; their idolatry and religiosity. His aim was to glorify the LORD and focus Israel’s full attention on Him.
Samuel’s contributions were effectively made through his dual role as prophet and priest (v) during the transition period between the judges and the early monarchy.
He contributed in an intercessory capacity for Israel. When there was need to pray, Samuel prayed and Israel was directly affected by these prayers (cf. 7:9). As a prophet and judge, he guided Israel back to spiritual integrity – temporal though it may have been. Even in the widespread, fervent desires for a king we find Samuel still interceding and shepherding Israel.
As a judge, he contributed much. Scott writes, “He was the last of the judges and doubtless the greatest. Presumably as he made his yearly circuits he judged the people and dealt with their spiritual problems no doubt also teaching them the Law of Moses so that the people’s spiritual condition could be improved”. (vi)
His contributions are reflected in the New Testament too where he is portrayed in Hebrews 11:32 as being a great man of faith.
Samuel established himself, by the grace of Yahweh, as the greatest prophet since Moses and certainly the greatest judge. Many commentators regard him as being one the three greatest figures in the Old Testament along with Moses and Abraham.(vii)
(i) John C.J. Waite, An Introduction to 1 Samuel, p. 2
(ii) J. Davis and J. Whitcomb, A History of Israel, p. 199
(iii) op.cit. p. 8
(iv) op.cit. p. 186
(v) H.L. Ellison regards Samuel as successfully combining the offices of prophet, priest and king. (The Prophets of Israel, p. 26). Only Christ combined these three offices, in my opinion.
(vi) Jack B. Scott, God’s Plan Unfolded, p. 120
(vii) Jeremiah 15:1 would appear to confirm this.
Davis, John J. and Withcomb, John C. A History of Israel, (Grand Rapids Baker Book House, 1980).
Ellison, H.L. The Prophets of Israel, (Grand Rapids, Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974).
Scott, Jack B. God’s Plan Unfolded, (Wheaton, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 1978).
Waite, John C.J. An Introduction To 1 Samuel from “Foundations” (A Theological Journal published by the British Evangelical Council, Issue No. 1, 1978, Nov.).
(All quotations are from the N.I.V.)